Behold the Power of Cheese

The French Alpine town of Albertville sits in the southeast of the country, near the border of Italy, is home to only about 10,000 people. Like most French communities, the people of Albertville rely on cheese. But unlike most other French areas, cheese is more than just a snack or part of a meal. It, quite literally, powers part of the area.

Power, as in electricity. Albertville is home to a cheese-fueled power plant.

Beaufort cheese is variety similar to Gruyere which comes from the region that Albertville is in. (If you’re a fan of fondue, there’s a good chance you’ve eaten it, as it’s often used in that capacity.) The process of making of Beaufort creates, as by-product, a liquidy substance called whey. Whey can be used in the production of a number of food items, such as cottage cheese. But when making beaufort, you end up with a lot more whey than you could dispose of in that way. As Smithsonian notes, because whey is so high in salt, it can’t be simply disposed of like other liquid waste. Beaufort manufacturers, therefore, needed to find another solution.

The answer: turn the whey into electricity. As the Telegraph explains, the whey is “placed in a tank with bacteria, where natural fermentation produces methane in the same way that the gas is produced in cows’ stomachs.” That biogas “is then fed through an engine that heats water to 90 degrees C and generates electricity” — enough to power the homes of about 1,500 people.

This power from cheese means that the process of making Beaufort is almost waste-free. Per the Independent, “99 per cent of elements for the production of Beaufort are used and clean mineral water is the only waste which result from the process.” And from a carbon emissions standpoint, whey-based fuel is better than many other options, too.

The success of the Albertville power plant is very promising; according to the Christian Science Monitor, the company which runs the plant (and some smaller ones as well) wants to open similar ones in Australia, Brazil, Italy, and Uruguay — and perhaps expand from there. So maybe one day, your home will be fueled by a nice piece of Gruyere.

Bonus Fact: While it’d be cool if Albertville’s claim to fame was its cheese power plant, that’s not the case. Albertville is probably better known for hosting the 1992 Winter Olympics. Had you watched the 1992 Winter Games, you may have caught a weird sport known as “ski ballet.” The sport, which was a demonstration sport both that year and in 1988, was something similar to figure skating — spins and (in this case, pole-assisted) flips — but on skis. The sport proved unpopular and didn’t survive much longer than the Albertville Games, but it definitely had its moments. Here’s a video of the gold medal-winning performance in the men’s competition (from 1988).

From the Archives: Yogurt Power: Similar story, different dairy product.

Take the Quiz: Name the countries that have hosted the Winter Olympics.

Related: Beaufort cheese.